Reading is alive and well with today’s young people

Sondra Murphy, with young adult books at the Oak Bluffs library.
Photo by Ralph Stewart

Sondra Murphy, with young adult books at the Oak Bluffs library.

There was a time when parents dusted off their classic kid’s books, from “Mother Goose” to “Cat in the Hat,” and launched their kids into the adventure of reading. That’s still the case among Gen X parents today, but reading choices for their kids have exploded from the days of “A Is For Apple” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Last year, an estimated 30,000 kids books were published in the U. S., about 10 percent of the total book releases from traditional publishers.

The Times talked with a cross-section of Island educators, librarians, and booksellers to learn what our kids are reading and how in the world they choose the titles in their world of diminished space and budgets.

The Island’s literary gatekeepers outlined a system virtually all of them use: research of reviews in responsible literary journals, networking with each other, and listening to their young readers. Most of the Island school librarians are hands-on classroom teachers as well, and they consider that classroom interaction beneficial both for engaging students and for selecting titles for kids to read.

The “Harry Potter effect,” books like the “Harry Potter” series and “The Hunger Games” become movies, a symbiosis that has also been a boon to reading, they said.

“First, we consider the kids we have here and what’s being published, then we do a matching game,” said Lynn Van Auken, librarian at the Oak Bluffs School. “We have to consider budgets carefully, so I read a lot of reviews (before buying a book). It’s an informal litmus test. I want at least three major publishing reviews — positive reviews, of course. Then I ask myself “who would read this book?” If a book meets those criteria, I add it to my cart.”

At the Charter School, librarian Kathryn Harcourt casts a gimlet eye as well. “It’s tricky,” she said. “Shelf space is limited. I read School Library Journal and The Hornbook reviews, and I sit in on free webinars from publishers a couple of times a month, Publisher’s Weekly, Book Links, and The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books are other objective, non-promotional review sources mentioned by educators and librarians.

Schools use programs, often incentivised, to stimulate reading and the scope of reading. “We have the Passport to Genre program at the Charter School,” Ms. Harcourt said. “Sixth-grade students are encouraged to read 14 different types of books. The idea is to understand the elements used in writing: like mood, setting, foreshadowing. We provide a glossary of the terms for student reference. A benefit is that students don’t get stuck on one author or series and they compare and contrast books in collaboration, which opens up using titles in different ways.”

Ms. Van Auken uses a reading program designed by Salem State University which encourages students statewide to read a specific number of titles, then participate in a vote to determine the best books of the year.

Authors are getting actively involved in promoting reading too. Popular children’s author Jack Gantos will visit three Island schools next month, his visit supported by school book fairs. Mr. Gantos will be at the Edgartown School on October 7, at Oak Bluffs School on October 8 and at the West Tisbury School on October 9. Authors Jon Scieszka and Mo Willems have developed programs to support reading and writing, and to encourage book ideas from young readers, particularly books for boys.

Nelia Decker, children’s librarian at the West Tisbury Public Library, said, “There are a lot of books out there. The goal is to find the treasure. It does make me wonder how we find what we find. It can feel like you’re drowning in books. If you took a poll, we’re all reading the same review journals, but school librarians buy different books than we do. They appeal to what teachers need in class, and provide more reading around the common core (of the curriculum). We support that, but we are more about pleasure reading. Word of mouth is strong. Kids tell us what they want, and we honor a kid excited about reading.”

The upsurge in post-apocalyptic novels, called “dystopic” literature, often starring a strong female lead character, leads the pop reading charts. The nature of the plot and realistic storyline also creates a crossover adult market.

Graphic novels, a particularly strong entry for early readers through middle school and beyond, are a no-brainer for librarians. “I buy the entire series of a popular author because I know the kids will be asking for them all,” Oak Bluffs librarian Sondra Murphy said.

The literary arbiters also report an interesting development in “crossover” titles: books designed for early readers to young adults that also engage adults and young readers of all ages. “Lots of adults read young adult books. If it’s good, you’ll read it. Picture books are a good example. That juxtaposition of art and words appeals to all readers,” Ms. Decker said.

Some of the books that kids (and often adults) are enjoying now are “Faults in Our Stars” by John Greene; “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak (originally released as an adult book in Great Britain); “Divergent” by Veronica Roth (second in a dystopic series a la The Hunger Games); “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio (a perfect example of a crossover book); “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” by Jeff Kinney; “Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonsalves (non-fiction); “Chuck Close Facebook” An interactive autobiography by Chuck Close, a physically challenged artist; “Clockwork Princess” by Cassandra Clare; and “The Raft” by S.A. Bodeen.

And, any books starring dragons and fairies — “We can never have enough dragon books,” Oak Bluffs librarian Sondra Murphy said.